A Linguistic History of Judaism: Yiddish
Updated: Jun 12
Written by Kyle Fingerhut
This is the second installment of blogs about Jewish languages. In this post, we’ll discuss Yiddish—or mameloshen “mother tongue” as it is affectionately called—a thousand-year-old language first spoken by Jews in Germany.
Origins of Yiddish
Around the tenth century, many French and Italian Jews began to settle in Germany. This group came to be called Ashkenazi Jews. The language these Jews spoke when they arrived in Germany was Laaz, a Judeo-French dialect—a common theme in Jewish languages is the existence of Judeic dialects of the languages spoken wherever Jews lived. As these speakers began to shift to German, they incorporated elements of Laaz and expressions from biblical Hebrew and Aramaic. This language eventually became Yiddish, a name that means “Jewish” in Yiddish itself. Beginning with the First Crusade in 1096 and increasing with the seemingly endless persecution of Jews thereafter, the effort for Jews to isolate themselves only grew, and having their own language meant they could do so and try to be left alone.
As Jews began to move Eastward in an effort to avoid persecution in the thirteenth century, they condensed not only in Germany but also Poland and other Eastern European countries where Yiddish came into contact with various Slavic languages. This had a lasting impact on Yiddish vocabulary, which can therefore be split between Western and Eastern Yiddish.
The Golden Age of Yiddish
In the sixteenth century, with the invention of the printing press, texts began to be published in Yiddish, which is written using the Hebrew alphabet. These were written in a version of Yiddish free of dialectical idiosyncrasies to ensure a wide readership.
While Yiddish had increasingly become the language of European Jews, in Germany in the eighteenth century, members of the Jewish Enlightenment, also known as the Hasklah, campaigned against the use of Yiddish. The Haskalah argued for assimilation and the use of the vernacular language wherever Jews lived.
Meanwhile, however, Yiddish only increased in speakership in Eastern Europe. To further this, Hasidic Jews (members of a Jewish group founded in the eighteenth century from a spiritual revival in contemporary Western Ukraine) used Yiddish heavily, both in religious ceremonies and in day-to-day life. In the nineteenth century, Yiddish literature burgeoned. These years saw the writings of Sholem Yankev Abramovitsh (whose nom de plume was Mendele Mokher Seforim), I. L. Peretz, and Sholem Aleichem.
Then, efforts to further the use of Yiddish came to a head in 1908 when the first conference was held on the Yiddish language in which it was declared a “national language of the Jewish people”. The purpose of the meeting was mainly to advance the use of Yiddish in education, standardize Yiddish spelling, and organize the funding of Jewish cultural institutions. Unfortunately, not many of these goals were accomplished. Instead, attendees mainly debated whether or not Yiddish was a or the "national language of the Jewish people".
The Fall of Yiddish
In the Soviet Union, the government once supported Yiddish schools, theater, and literature as long as it was not religious in nature. However, this policy was shortlived and institutions began to be forcefully shut down. As Joseph Stalin viewed Yiddish as anti-soviet, many Yiddish writers were imprisoned or executed during the purges of 1937. Another similar incident was the murdering of many Yiddish writers on the Night of the Murdered Poets.
Prior to the Holocaust, there were thirteen million speakers of Yiddish. However, eighty-five percent of the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust were Yiddish speakers. In 2021 there was an estimated speakership of 600,000. Consequently, the language is considered “definitely endangered” by the UNESCO Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger.
Further decreasing Yiddish speakership, when Israel was founded in 1948 Yiddish was heavily suppressed in order to promote Hebrew—the Israeli government even went so far as taxing Yiddish theater in an effort to unify all Jews as Hebrew speakers. Yiddish was, of course, a language unique to European Jews which could not unite the Jews of innumerable backgrounds fleeing to Israel. After the Jews of the former USSR, North Africans make up the highest number of immigrants to Israel. Jews from Iraq, Ethiopia, and Iran are also in the top nine origin countries, so clearly Yiddish would not have been a representative choice. Likewise, many speakers of Yiddish wanted to leave behind any trace of German due to the traumas of the Holocaust.
As a further blow to Yiddish, those who immigrated to the United States were eager to assimilate and adopt English, especially for their children. For example, my Bubbe (Yiddish for grandmother) and Zayde (Yiddish for grandfather) were both born in the United States to Ukrainian Jewish parents. My great-grandparents taught my Bubbe and Zayde Yiddish, however, for reasons that are now unclear to my Bubbe, she and my Zayde never taught Yiddish to their three children. Though my Bubbe adores Yiddish and continues to attend a weekly Yiddish club with a group of other women in Maryland, it seems abundantly clear that the population of young Jews who speak Yiddish is on a steep decline.
Nowadays, Eastern Yiddish is the most common dialect and it is mostly spoken by Ultra-Orthodox Jews in New York and Israel. Though Yiddish has lost the status it once possessed, a revival is gaining traction. Not only is Yiddish on Duolingo, but there is an abundance of both old and new Yiddish music and literature out there.
Examples of Yiddish
Yiddish is claimed to be made up of roughly eighty percent German and twenty percent Hebrew with a good measure of Slavic words thrown in depending on the variety. Therefore, for most Germans, Yiddish is more or less intelligible and sounds quite similar to certain regional varieties of German—though the Hebrew and Slavic components are, of course, unintelligible.
Though Yiddish is regrettably falling out of use, it has left an indelible mark on many languages where Jews have been present. For the sake of relevance, I’ll talk about English and Dutch. In English, the words chutzpah, bagel, glitch, klutz, kvetch, mensch, schmuck are all, among many others, of Yiddish origin. In Dutch, the words Mokum (slang for “Amsterdam”), gannef “thief”, gabber “friend”, lef “courage”, mazzel “luck”, sores “misery”, ponem “face” are all, among many others, of Yiddish origin.
As an example of Yiddish words as compared with German, Hebrew, and Slavic languages respectively, we can examine the following:
Though Yiddish was once regarded by many as a corrupt dialect of German, today it receives attention from learners who wish to revive their ancestral language and even German linguists who wish to examine ancient facets of German only preserved in Yiddish. Likewise, many universities offer Yiddish courses; as of February 2023, Yiddish will even be taught at the University of Amsterdam. Click here for more information on that.
If you’re interested in learning Yiddish or just want to hear what it sounds like, here is a link to a playlist containing some Yiddish songs that I like.
Thank you for reading!
Birnbaum, S. A. (1988). Grammatik der Jiddischen Sprache: Mit einem Wörterbuch und lesestücken. Buske.
Jewish Virtual Library. (n.d.). Total Immigration to Israel by Country of Origin. Total immigration to Israel by country of origin. https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/total-immigration-to-israel-by-country-of-origin
The National Theater on Lower East Side, New York City circa 1912. (n.d.). photograph, Lower East Side, New York City.
Walfish, M. (2017, August 14). The history of Yiddish. My Jewish Learning. Retrieved February 20, 2023, from https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/yiddish/
Welcome to the Department of Jewish Studies. Yiddish FAQs. (n.d.). Retrieved February 20, 2023, from https://jewishstudies.rutgers.edu/yiddish/102-department-of-jewish-studies/yiddish/159-yiddish-faqs
Yiddish. History & Development of Yiddish. (n.d.). Retrieved February 20, 2023, from https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/history-and-development-of-yiddish